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Digital Technology in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) Industry: Research Trends and Practical Status toward Construction 4.0

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Construction 4.0 represents the exploration of new technologies in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry. The development of digital technologies is rapid and the adoption of them significantly impacts construction projects, for example leading to a reduction in change orders, better decision making, and improvements in quality of work. However, stakeholders may find it challenging to determine the promising technologies within the context of the AEC industry. This paper presents an exploratory study to investigate the potentially applicable technologies and their research and practice trends in the AEC industry. A scoping review was the method utilized to perform a quantitative analysis of over five thousand journals papers published from 2010 onwards based on two academic databases (Scopus and CNKI). The results present the top 10 construction 4.0 technologies, including building information modelling (BIM), artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing, machine learning, internet of things (IoT), geographic information systems (GIS), virtual reality (VR), big data, robotics and augmented reality (AR). Subsequently, 145 industry professionals were invited to select the most used construction 4.0 technologies in their projects via a questionnaire survey. Mobile devices, BIM and Digital signature are mostly adopted on-site. The findings of this study can enhance the awareness of stakeholders towards construction 4.0 technologies and may help them make better decisions in selecting and implementing the promising technologies.
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Digital Technology in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) Industry:
Research Trends and Practical Status toward Construction 4.0
Kaiyang Wang1; Fangyu Guo2; Cheng Zhang3; Jianli Hao4; and Dirk Schaefer5
1Ph.D. Student, Dept. of Civil Engineering, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool Univ., China.
Email: Kaiyang.Wang@xjtlu.edu.cn
2Assistant Professor, Dept. of Civil Engineering, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool Univ., China
(corresponding author). Email: Fangyu.Guo@xjtlu.edu.cn
3Associate Professor, Dept. of Civil Engineering, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool Univ., China.
Email: Cheng.Zhang@xjtlu.edu.cn
4Senior Associate Professor, Dept. of Civil Engineering, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool Univ., China.
Email: Jianli.Hao@xjtlu.edu.cn
5Professor, Dept. of Civil Engineering and Industrial Design, Univ. of Liverpool, UK.
Email: Dirk.Schaefer@liverpool.ac.uk
ABSTRACT
Construction 4.0 represents the exploration of new technologies in the architecture,
engineering, and construction (AEC) industry. The development of digital technologies is rapid
and the adoption of them significantly impacts construction projects, for example, leading to a
reduction in change orders, better decision making, and improvements in quality of work.
However, stakeholders may find it challenging to determine the promising technologies within
the context of the AEC industry. This paper presents an exploratory study to investigate the
potentially applicable technologies and their research and practice trends in the AEC industry. A
scoping review was the method utilized to perform a quantitative analysis of over five thousand
journals papers published from 2010 onward based on two academic databases (Scopus and
CNKI). The results present the top 10 construction 4.0 technologies, including building
information modelling (BIM), artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing, machine learning, internet
of things (IoT), geographic information systems (GIS), virtual reality (VR), big data, robotics,
and augmented reality (AR). Subsequently, 145 industry professionals were invited to select the
most used construction 4.0 technologies in their projects via a questionnaire survey. Mobile
devices, BIM, and Digital signature are mostly adopted on-site. The findings of this study can
enhance the awareness of stakeholders toward construction 4.0 technologies and may help them
make better decisions in selecting and implementing the promising technologies.
KEYWORDS: BIM, Digital technology, Technology adoption, Questionnaire, AEC industry
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
Many industries will change as a result of the technical development towards the fourth
industrial revolution. Digital technologies are explored within Industry 4.0 by the manufacturing
industry to find beneficial effects and improve productivity. Construction 4.0 is the equivalent of
exploring new technologies in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry
(Craveiroa et al. 2019). The AEC industry is an important contributor to China's national
economy. In 2020, the total value of the industry reached 26.4 trillion RMB, with an increase of
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6.2% over the previous year, which accounted for 7.2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
(National Bureau of Statistics 2021). However, the number of practitioners has decreased and the
expense of the construction workforce has increased for two consecutive years in the industry
(CCIA 2021). Therefore, the Chinese government proposed to speed up the digital
transformation from the traditional paper-based approach in the AEC industry in the country’s
fourteenth five-year plan, in order to mitigate the issues such as loss of labour, carbon dioxide
emission and cost overrun. At the same time, digital devices, methods, and systems (also known
as digital technologies) have been developed vigorously, which provide strong support for the
digital transformation of new construction projects. By adopting digital technologies, enormous
opportunities could be introduced for enhancing the effectiveness and quality of construction
processes and creating business innovation. For example, the AEC industry is experiencing an
unprecedented reform of tools and methodology because of the incorporation of building
information modelling (BIM), integrated project management (IPD) and lean construction. Also,
the productivity of the AEC industry could be greatly improved if new technologies are
leveraged more effectively. Significant managerial and technological advancements have been
observed due to the technology application in the AEC industry (Sepasgozar et al. 2018).
Nevertheless, many studies have indicated that the AEC industry is reluctant to implement
emerging technologies, which shows lower levels of technology maturity than other industries
such as manufacturing, electronics and aviation (Pärn and Edwards 2017). Compared to other
industries, Oesterreich and Teuteberg (2016) stated that the AEC industry is more difficult to
manage and integrate new technologies, because construction projects are complex, requiring
individual undertakings and a high level of professional knowledge. They also concluded that
some challenges and problems should be taken into account before the digital transformation of
the industry, such as organizational and process changes, resistance to technological change,
hesitation to adopt technologies, and others. For instance, a large amount of small and medium-
sized enterprises (SMEs) hesitated to invest in new technologies due to the low awareness of the
benefits and the trends of the technology application. At present, it is impossible and
inappropriate to adopt various technologies in companies due to the large investments. It is
worthwhile to identify the digital technologies that have big potential for the current and future
AEC industry to improve the awareness of these technologies.
Thus, this paper aims to fill a gap in literature by providing an overview of the current
research and practical trend of digital technologies in the AEC industry. In order to achieve this
aim, the following objectives arise: (1) To identify digital technologies that are currently
associated with the concept of construction 4.0; (2) to investigate the research trend of these
technologies in the AEC industry; (3) to point out the current status of these technologies
implemented in the Chinese AEC industry.
Based on these questions, the findings of this study will enhance the awareness of
researchers, government policymakers, and industry stakeholders of current promising
technologies and direct them towards digital transformation.
RESEARCH METHODOLOGY
This study employed literature and industrial questionnaire survey to provide a
comprehensive insight into the research trend and current application status of digital
technologies in the AEC industry. The process for this study is illustrated in Figure 1.
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Figure 1. Research design
State of the art
The technological stream constitutes a significant research field concerning digital
transformation. Peculiar technologies can lead to important improvements in technique and
organization. Nevertheless, there are some inconsistencies of technologies list among the
different domains. In order to identify the current and potential technologies used in the AEC
industry, a preliminary search of existing literature was conducted. Multiple databases, including
Scopus, Web of Science, and specific publishers such as the American Society of Civil
Engineers (ASCE) were employed to search for and identify useful publications related to the
digital technologies in the industry. The scoping review technique of the Literature-Based
Discovery (LBD) approach (Levac, Colquhoun and O'Brien 2010) was adopted at this stage,
suitable for overviews of key concepts and research gaps of emerging areas. Following the
scoping review steps derived from the framework, relevant studies were selected. Twelve full-
text papers were included in the final review after data characterization of the searched journal
articles, identifying 65 related technologies.
Analysis of trends in existing research is helpful in identifying popular topics and exploring
future research direction. To investigate the number of research articles related to each
technology in the field of construction industry, the Scopus database was selected as the basis for
this investigation since it has comprehensive coverage of high-quality peer-reviewed articles and
the availability of more recent publications (Zhao et al. 2019). In order to identify the latest
research trend reported in the literature, the published papers are confined to the last ten years,
from 2010 to present (as of 29 April 2021). Two selection criteria were applied to filter the
articles: (1) The searched technology is the main research topic employed in the article, this is
because some studies only mentioned the technology such as 5G, whilst did not actually
investigate 5G in the article; and (2) the application of this technology is related to AEC
industry. Table 1 summarizes the frequency of occurrence for the top ten technologies
investigated in worldwide journal publications. Due to space limitations, an overview of each
specific technology is not possible, the readers are directed to the website
(https://www.researchgate.net/publication/354234827_Digital_technologies) for additional
information.
Furthermore, to reflect the current research trend of these technologies in China, the core
Chinese journal papers published were also screened based on the same steps. CNKI database
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was selected as the data source for its wide adoption in China. Firstly, a pilot screening was
conducted to search the target papers, showing that a limited number of papers were published
from 2010 to 2017, hence, only the papers published after 2018 were counted here. Figure 2
shows the frequency of occurrence for the top ten technologies investigated in the selected
Chinese database published from 2018 to present.
Survey instrument
A structured survey questionnaire was designed to investigate the current status of applying
the identified technologies on construction site. The survey contained four sections: (1)
objectives of the study along with a consent form; (2) demographic background of participants;
(3) participant’s experience level on the identified technologies; and (4) recommendation of the
promising technologies that should be invested in the AEC industry. In terms of section three,
the experience level of each technology was rated on a five-point Likert scale from 1 (very low
level) to 5 (very high level). The relative importance index (RII) method was employed to
calculate the experience level with each technology. This technique is utilized to determine the
importance of each indicator compared with others (Metro et al. 2021). The RII equation is
presented below:
RII =
× = 
() (0RII1)
Where W is scale weight from 1 to 5, value given to each technology by the respondents, A
is highest weight given (=5), and N is total number of respondents.
Concerning the survey sample, the unit of analysis in this survey refers to the employees in
the Chinese AEC industry. A Chinese website (https://www.wenjuan.com/) providing online
survey services was utilized to create the online questionnaire. Firstly, a pilot testing with five
experts from academia and industry was carried out to review the technologies and the
readability of the questionnaire. Minor modifications were made in response to the feedback
received.
This research is exploratory, hence, a nonprobability purposive sampling technique was
employed for this study. Subsequently, the authors distributed 375 online questionnaires via
Email, LinkedIn or WeChat (communication software developed by Tencent) to the target
respondents. A total of 167 (44%) responses were received and all of them were complete
without missing data because of the online survey settings. Then, the repetitive responses with
the same Internet Protocol (IP) address were eliminated, and invalid responses with the same
rating for the Likert chart were discarded. Consequently, 145 valid samples were utilized for
further analysis.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSIONS
State of the art – publication growth trends
This study identified sixty-five digital technologies that could be implemented in the
construction industry. Among them, Table 1 presents the top ten technologies that have been
studied over the past decade, including BIM, Artificial Intelligence (AI), 3D Printing, Machine
Learning, Internet of Things (IoT), Geographic Information system (GIS), Virtual Reality (VR),
Big Data, Robotics and Augmented Reality (AR). Each of them is briefly introduced below.
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BIM: BIM is developed to act as a powerful tool to support effective information sharing and
communication among stakeholders in the construction industry in the whole life cycle of
building projects. Meanwhile, BIM-based project delivery establishes a paradigm for enhancing
project efficiency (Tang et al. 2019).
AI: AI refers to the ability of machines that mimic human intelligence to solve complicated
and ill-defined problems intelligently and adaptively by using algorithms. To promote the real
digital strategies in the construction industry, AI serves as the backbone to change the way a
construction project performs (Pan and Zhang 2021).
3D printing: 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) is an advanced
manufacturing process of joining materials to make solid objects automatically from 3D model
data without any dies, fixtures and tooling (Duballet, Baverel and Dirrenberger 2017). This
technology has become quite popular in industrial design, transportation, and aeronautics to
create functional prototypes because of its efficiency and minimum material wastage.
Machine learning: Machine learning, a subset of AI, makes systems evolve as if they are
learning, utilizing algorithms based on existing data to predict future behaviour. During
construction projects, it supports the automation of decision making in processes, logistics and
safety (Tixier et al. 2016).
IoT: IoT represents the interconnection of sensing and actuating devices to capture data and
enable information sharing via a unified framework (Khanna and Kaur 2019). In the construction
industry, IoT is able to connect BIM with physical devices for on-site control and monitoring,
optimizing communication and logistics (Tang et al. 2019).
GIS: GIS is a digital platform to store, manage and analyze different types of data and
present their spatial location in maps (Zagvozda et al. 2019). It can be applied for scoping and
preliminary study, visualization, and maintenance purpose in construction projects.
VR: VR can generate scenes with a realistic appearance from computer systems with glasses
or CAVE (cave automatic virtual environment). Currently, VR is commonly integrated with BIM
to improve safety and quality management. It can also be used as a design tool to allow clients
and end-users to immerse themselves inside their future built asset.
Big data: Three main attributes (i.e., volume, variety and velocity), also known as 3V, are
used to define big data. Construction data is well explained by big data since it is typically large,
dynamic and heterogeneous. By using big data techniques and technologies, large volumes of
information generated by the construction could be explored.
Robotics: The robotic technology can be grouped into four general categories in construction,
namely, on-site automated vehicles, off-site prefabrication systems, exoskeletons, and drones and
autonomous (Delgado et al. 2019). The robot could help with element cutting, structural
reinforcement bending, welding and other tasks (Tavares et al. 2019).
AR: AR is used to integrate images of virtual objects into the real world. It could satisfy the
goal of enhancing users' perception of virtual prototyping with real entities by inserting the
virtually simulated prototypes into the real environment (Li et al. 2018).
In addition to the technologies presented in the table, there is a significant rising trend of
investigating blockchain, cyber-physical systems (CPS) and digital twin in the research articles
in the past four years (2017 to 2020), with an annual growth rate of 273%, 132% and 127%,
respectively. Moreover, more than 32% of the reviewed articles come from six academic
journals, including Automation in Construction, Journal of Construction Engineering and
Management, Journal of Information Technology in Construction, Sustainability, Advanced
Engineering Informatics and Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management.
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Moreover, CNKI database was employed as the analysis object to investigate the research
trend of the top ten technologies studied in China (as shown in Figure 2). Although the rankings
of specific technologies are slightly different from Table 1, 90% of the technologies that
appeared in Figure 2 are also included in Table 1, except for AR and UAV. UAV refers to small-
scale remote-controlled aerial vehicles equipped with sensors and cameras. The application of
UAV technology could improve safety planning and monitoring processes on construction site
since it can access specifically inaccessible, hard-to-reach, or unsafe locations (Martinez,
Gheisari and Alarcón 2020).
Based on the data extracted from these two databases, it can be observed that BIM has
become the core technology in the construction industry at the current stage, since BIM could
improve the management process and integrate with other tools to enhance its functionality. For
instance, with the integration of BIM and prefabrication, the field hospitals could be built ultra-
rapidly to combat the COVID-19 pandemic (Luo et al. 2020).
Table 1. Frequency of occurrence for the top ten digital technologies (Scopus)
Sequence
number
Technology
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
2016
2017
2018
2019
2020
2021
Total
1
BIM
19
25
26
62
96
123
152
176
272
336
435
164
1886
2
AI
12
12
17
12
11
24
25
12
36
39
69
40
309
3
3D printing
0
0
2
0
3
10
33
55
90
58
251
4 Machine
learning
1 0 2 1 2 3 8 9 25 48 89 46 234
5
IoT
0
1
2
3
8
14
21
50
82
43
224
6
GIS
2
13
10
12
10
17
23
21
23
33
39
17
220
7
VR
5
6
12
9
8
7
22
35
53
26
199
8
Big data
0
0
1
4
9
19
24
42
62
32
193
9
Robotics
4
4
4
5
7
11
15
15
59
34
165
10
AR
5
7
8
5
6
4
12
31
32
17
134
Figure 2. Frequency of occurrence for the top ten digital technologies (CNKI)
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Survey results and analysis
A total of 145 valid responses were generated to investigate the current application status of
digital technologies. The respondents have at least three years of working experience in the AEC
industry, including civil engineer (51%), construction/project manager (41%) and consultant
(8%).
The RII results are presented in Table 2, showing the most used digital technologies. Three
technologies have occurred in Table 1 and Figure 2, which are BIM, UAV and GIS. Mobile
devices, Digital signature, Electronic Document Management (EDM) systems, Global
Positioning System (GPS), 5G, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Terrestrial Laser
Scanning (TLS) are other representative technologies, which are briefly introduced below.
Table 2. RII analysis results of the top ten used technologies
Technology Total respondents
1 2 3 4 5 RII Rank
Mobile devices
5
27
43
38
32
0.690
1
BIM
9
43
55
20
18
0.593
2
Digital signature
19
42
42
12
30
0.589
3
EDM
20
42
39
23
21
0.577
4
UAV
14
48
43
22
18
0.575
5
GPS
10
59
41
15
20
0.567
6
GIS
15
57
38
16
19
0.554
7
5G
19
52
37
21
16
0.549
8
RFID
28
52
32
18
15
0.517
9
TLS
36
45
42
11
11
0.484
10
Note: 1: Very low level; 2: Low level; 3: Moderate level; 4: High level; 5: Very high level.
Mobile devices: They provide convenience and flexibility for construction tasks. The
commonly adopted mobile devices contain smartphones, iPads, field tablets, laptops, and others.
Digital signature: Digital signature refers to digitally encrypted/decryption electronic
signatures, including identities, time and date, and a password. The review and approval process
of the submitted electronic documents could be accelerated by using it.
EDM systems: EDM systems enable all electronic documents to be stored, updated, and
shared through a web server in a project (Guo, Jahren and Turkan 2018).
GPS: GPS provides services for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT). On construction
projects, GPS could locate and track the position of workers and machines, to improve safety
instruction (Tang et al. 2019).
5G: It is the fifth generation of wireless systems or mobile networks technology, with
decreased latency for a larger number of connected devices and increased average bandwidth
speed (Gupta et al. 2019).
RFID: RFID typically consists of three components, namely, RFID tags, RFID antennas and
a host computer. It could be applied for tracking and identifying moving objects between
different positions.
TLS: TLS, also known as terrestrial or topographic LiDAR (light detection and ranging), is
utilized to measure the distance from the device to the target and acquire 3D point cloud of the
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scanned objects, which can be applied for geometric quality assessment due to its high speed and
accuracy (Rashidi et al. 2020).
It is reasonable that most trending technologies in research are not on this list (Table 2) since
it takes time for people to learn the right skills to apply and use the technologies effectively and
for industry enterprises to invest them.
An open question was raised to ask participants to recommend the promising digital
technologies that should be invested in the AEC industry. Nine technologies have over 5%
occurrence frequency (see Figure 3). Accordingly, BIM (21%) is the most recommended
technology by participants, followed by 5G, UAV, Robotics, GPS, EDM, 3D printing, IoT and
RFID.
Figure 3. Recommendation of key technologies for investment
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATION
Digital transformation is inevitable in the AEC industry. By using different digital
technologies, greater efficiency, safety and productivity could be achieved for construction
projects. Nevertheless, the rapid change and updating of technologies put tremendous pressure
on stakeholders in terms of selecting and adopting the new technologies. This paper investigates
the research and practical trends of digital technologies in the AEC industry, which could serve
as the basis for organizations to determine their future direction and strategies associated with
technology implementation.
In this study, multiple databases were utilized to identify 65 technologies applied in the AEC
industry. Based on the Scopus database, the top ten technologies that have been mostly
researched from 2010 to 2021 are presented, including BIM, AI, 3D Printing, Machine Learning,
IoT, GIS, VR, Big Data, Robotics and AR. Meanwhile, the research trend of the technologies in
China was explored by using the CNKI database. The top ten technologies investigated in
Chinese academia are also presented and compared with the previous top ten list, where nine out
of ten technologies appear in both of the lists. Overall, BIM is the technology that has been
mostly studied in the field of civil engineering.
Based on the survey results, the most used technologies in the Chinese AEC industry are
Mobile devices, BIM, Digital signature, EDM, UAV, GPS, GIS, 5G, RFID and TLS. From the
perspective of participants, BIM, 5G, UAV, Robotics, GPS, EDM, 3D printing, IoT and RFID
are the promising technologies that should be invested in the AEC industry.
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Finally, digitalization is not only about technologies, it is also about processes, organization
and people. The successful implementation of new technologies could be affected by various
factors from multiple perspectives such as socio-economic (e.g., governance mode),
psychological (e.g., behavioural intention) and managerial (e.g., top-management support).
Further research and development in some specific technologies are still necessary, and this
paper has provided a clear direction of research trend. Once stakeholders have realized the full
potential of digital technologies, the future AEC industry will be reshaped and brought into a
construction 4.0 era.
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